Saturday, December 30, 2006

Dawkins admits mistake, removes name from petition

Richard Dawkins has admitted he erred in signing the controversial petition mentioned in the previous post, and in a comment on Ed Brayton's blog, says the following:

I did sign the petition, but I hadn't thought it through when I did so, and I now regret it. I have asked the organizer to remove my name. Unfortunately, it seems that the list has already gone off to Downing Street but the organizer, Jamie Wallis, has kindly asked their web manager to remove my name. I suspect that he himself may be having second thoughts about the wording, and I respect him for that. It isn't always easy to get the exact wording right.

I signed it having read only the main petition: "We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to make it illegal to indoctrinate or define children by religion before the age of 16." I regret to say that I did not notice the supporting statement with the heading, "More details from petition creator": "In order to encourage free thinking, children should not be subjected to any regular religious teaching or be allowed to be defined as belonging to a particular religious group based on the views of their parents or guardians." If I had read that, I certainly would not have signed the petition, because, as explained in The God Delusion, I am in favour of teaching the Bible as literature, and I am in favour of teaching comparative religion. In any case, like any decent liberal, I am opposed to the element of government coercion in the wording. Furthermore, the Prime Minister, thank goodness, does not have the power to 'make' anything 'illegal'. Only parliament has the power to do that.

I signed the main petition, because I really am passionately opposed to DEFINING children by the religion of their parents (while 'indoctrination' is such a loaded word, nobody could be in favour of it). I was so delighted to hear of somebody else who cared about the defining or labelling of children by the religion of their parents (how would you react if you heard a child described as a 'seclular humanist child' or a 'neo-conservative child'?) that I signed it without reading on and without thinking. Mea culpa.

So there we have it. Unlike creationists, Dr. Dawkins shows a scientist's humility and willingness to admit to a mistake. I hope he is more circumspect in future about adding his name, and the considerable weight it carries, to anything that on the surface appears to support his views, before looking more deeply at its true ramifications.

PS: PZ Myers has spoken to Dawkins personally and confirmed it is Dawkins who commented at Brayton's blog, and that Dawkins has in fact recanted.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Has Dawkins totally jumped the shark?

Richard Dawkins has been a huge hero to the atheist community for some time, not only for his years of tireless advocacy of science, but, most recently, for his work in bringing atheist views into the mainstream with his bestseller The God Delusion. But recently, his support of a rather alarming petition in his native England has disturbing implications.

The petition, authored by one Jamie Wallis using a service on the #10 Downing Street website that allows users to write their own petitions and gather signatures right there for the PM's consideration, reads as follows:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Make it illegal to indoctrinate or define children by religion before the age of 16. In order to encourage free thinking, children should not be subjected to any regular religious teaching or be allowed to be defined as belonging to a particular religious group based on the views of their parents or guardians. At the age of 16, as with other laws, they would then be considered old enough and educated enough to form their own opinion and follow any particular religion (or none at all) through free thought.


Let's run through this.

The first and most obvious thing that comes to mind is that what the petition asks is something that in America is unequivocally unconstitutional: government intrusion in private religious practice. Ed Brayton, over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, has gone into outrage overload at this whole thing, declaring that "as far as I'm concerned, this pretty much removes Dawkins from any discussion among reasonable people." He goes on to a laundry list of entirely valid criticisms.

This proposal is every bit as noxious and totalitarian as a proposal from Christian reconstructionists that those who teach their children about witchcraft or atheism should be thrown in jail would be. Just imagine what you would have to do to actually enforce such a law. No one could take their children to church, which means you'd have to literally police the churches to make sure no children went in. Nor could they teach their children about religion at home, read the Bible with them, say prayers with them before they go to bed. The only way to enforce such a law would be to create a society that would make Orwell's 1984 seem optimistic by comparison.

In case the "thrown in jail" part sounds a little hyperbolic to you, recall that the petition itself uses the word "illegal," and the general idea is that if someone does something illegal, then they've earned at the very least a citation and at worst imprisonment. Does Dawkins really want people to go to jail for taking their kids to Sunday School? Has he really gone that far over the top?

I ask this because, unlike Brayton, who tends to get reactionary and pissed off at the drop of a hat, I have the impression just based on my reading of Dawkins over the years that the man is at least sensible and rational enough to comprehend and even concede all of the points Brayton has raised in objection. He has never come across like 1984's O'Brien, nor even as someone inclined to shoot off his mouth carelessly like Elton John about banning religion utterly.

A law that tossed parents in jail because they told their kids about the baby Jesus would obviously be not only an egregious intrusion into the sanctity of the family and home, but a brand of thought crime so self-evidently absurd as to be beyond rational consideration. Is Dawkins perhaps thinking, Well, we prohibit children from drinking and driving and voting and going off to war until a certain age. Shouldn't we consider religious indoctrination similarly risky and withhold it until the age of consent as well? Is he perhaps thinking of the way children in heavily religious, war-torn areas — such as Catholic-vs-Protestant Northern Ireland or Muslims-vs-Jews West Bank or Muslims-vs-Christians Sudan — are unfairly harmed and victimized by conflicts brought on by the warring faiths of their parents? While this is another reason to disdain religion, I hardly see how a law prohibiting religious exposure to minors will protect one from a stray .50-caliber round fired by some hopped-up asshole screaming "Allah akbar!"

I could go on. I will go on. Does Dawkins think that freethought can only arise in a young mind if religion is kept away? I was raised Christian, and many of my fellow heathens are surprised to hear I have quite fond memories of my adolescent churchgoing years — particularly the sleepover parties at the Tallowood Baptist Church rec center we called "lock-ins," in which we 14-year-olds indulged in the rare prilivege of staying up all night. (And no, we weren't preached to the whole time, it was pretty much lightly supervised. If anything, I remember myself and my friends sitting around talking about girls like any other 14-year-olds would do, and using naughty words while we did so.)

Despite this youthful "indoctrination," I emerged a freethinker and an atheist every bit as hardline as Dawkins. Why is this? Because in addition to church there were other influences in my life — I was and still am a voracious and omnivorous reader — and I learned to question received wisdom and authoritarian declarations as a matter of course. It is very true that not all kids — few, even — have these options or would take them if they did. But is it the sort of situation that can be created by legal fiat? You'd have to be a blind fool to think so. We've all seen how well laws banning kids from buying cigarettes have succeeded in eradicating teen smoking.

Most other atheists have come from a religious tradition. Team member Matt Dillahunty has described himself as a former fundamentalist who was firmly on board the young-earth creationist train. A cohost I had for a few months on the AE TV show, David Clark, was a former seminarian who had even performed baptisms; before he moved from Austin he was leading a push to get a decalogue monument off the state capital lawn (it's still there). Today, atheists all. Would keeping religion away from them as minors have made them any better or stronger in their atheism, more prepared to argue soundly and think rationally, than they are today?

I remember years ago watching Frank Zappa tell a TV interviewer that his formula for raising perfect children was to keep them away from religion. Children should not have such an important decision foisted upon them until they are old enough to comprehend what religions are all about, what they claim, and how to evaluate their claims. Only with age and intelligence can the choice of which religion to choose — including none at all — be made. It is, on balance, a sensible opinion.

But of course, Zappa did not and never would have advocated government enforcement of this idea. I'm baffled to see why Dawkins seems to endorse it. And so, as an admirer of Dawkins over the years (I'm not yet ready to write him off like Brayton), I want an explanation.

What exactly does Dawkins mean by this? Would he really wish such intrusion into the private lives of U.K. citizens? He must know that the Christians are going to go bugfuck over this; why would he hand them such a blatant and easy weapon? (Let's take a quick bet on how many Christian blogs will not pass "go" and go directly to Godwin's Law on this one.) And does he honestly think that, even if it were possible (how the hell do you keep religion away from kids when almost anywhere you look in London or any other British city or town you see steeples?), shielding children from religious exposure until their teens will do fuck-all to stem the tide of irrationalism, superstition, intolerance, ignorance, prejudice, and scientific illiteracy that religion propogates now? Can there be, lurking behind Dawkins' calm demeanor and eminent rationalism, such naivety? It just doesn't compute.

So I think he needs to get on his website and immediately post an editorial or something explaining why he endorses this petition, and what he thinks it means.

He especially owes this to those of us who are his supporters, but who also believe in freedom from government intrusion into private affairs, and who don't think the cause of freethought — let alone its very definition — is at all served by laws allowing the government to tell you how you can or can't raise your kids.

Bored gaming

The demented duo, Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, are at it again. I've already posted lengthy responses to their "Way of the Master" series, covering episodes on atheism and evolution — but it seems they haven't bothered to read and learn.

Their latest endeavor is a new board game called "Intelligent Design versus Evolution". According to Kirk Cameron,

We are very excited about this game because it presents both sides of the creation evolution argument, and in doing so, shows that the contemporary theory of evolution is perhaps the greatest hoax of modern times.

Which means that they haven't actually presented both sides, they've simply presented their side along with their grossly misunderstood view of the actual science that supports evolution.

The goal of their game is to collect "brain cards" and the player with the most brain cards wins. The irony is so thick that the responses nearly write themselves...

Endorsing this brain trust is Ken Ham, the creationist responsible for and quotes like:

I don't use science to prove my religion. I use the Bible to build my science.

Evidently Dr. Dino is a little busy.

Monday, December 25, 2006

So it's Monday

Evidently the Christians are having some major holiday today. To me, it's a very quiet Monday. The weather's pretty, though. Very nice change from the rains yesterday.

I don't see any reason to treat December 25 any differently from any other day, whether for "cultural" reasons or any other. They're all unique, you only live them once, so enjoy them as best you can!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Another casualty in the "War on Christmas"

What do you want to bet this will be blamed on godless libruls?

You realize, of course, that this means WAH!

Louie Savva's Everything Is Pointless is (like ours, he said modestly) a really good blog you should be in the habit of reading. That fact does not mean, however, that his closing in on our #4 chart position at The Best of Net Atheism can be tolerated. Start clicking, soldier! And suck in that gut!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

When Christian belief is "deluded" to mainstream Christians

There's been another ghastly incident of a zealously religious mother murdering her small children and saying God told her to, and this has sparked an interesting discussion on the ACA mailing list that I thought I'd hijack and migrate over here.

The ugly story in brief: Lashuan Harris, a young Oakland woman, believing she was under orders from God to deliver a human sacrifice, methodically flung her three kids, ranging in ages from 18 months to 6 years, into the freezing San Francisco Bay. Her counsel has pled not guilty by reason of insanity, which might seem entirely understandable (except for the "not guilty" part — I've always thought the plea should be "guilty but mentally impaired" or something) until you realize there's this Bible story about a fellow named Abraham and his son Isaac. Evidently this kind of behavior is not unknown in the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, in the modern day California version of the story, it looks as if God forgot to give the kids a last minute stay of execution on the grounds his mother had passed some sort of sick loyalty test.

On the mailing list, the indefatigable Stephen Rogers — quite possibly making the Abraham/Isaac connection as well — asked if events like this weren't enough to wake believers out of their trance and realize how morally reprehensible and deranged their belief system really is. I replied that most Christians will probably just dismiss such a quandary with remarks that the woman isn't a True Christian™, or that she was just delusional and that God would never ask anyone to do such a thing, though he clearly did according to Genesis 22. Regular AE blog commenter Tracie Harris made a worthwhile point:

Everything I was ever taught about Xianity — when I was a Xian — would support her logic. These children are in heaven, according to most Xian doctrines. It's funny to me that using Xian logic to ensure your children's place in heaven is also labeled "delusion."

Even if the woman is viewed as having committed a sin — according to Xian doctrine, she did send her kids to god/heaven (although she may pay with eternity in hell for herself — that would take a really loving Xian mom to sacrifice her eternal soul and exhibit such great faith to kill her own children to ensure they're [sic] eternal happiness).

By calling her "deluded" in her logic, though, it's no different than calling all Xians deluded. If she was deluded for thinking that killing her kids would send them to heaven/god, then I know a great number of deluded Xians who think exactly the same way — but who just wouldn't kill their own kids to lock in their slots in heaven.

This distinction would seem to be the separator: the transition from belief into action. Consider: if a Christian would conclude that Lashuan Harris was delusional, and yet would still profess belief in the truth of the Abraham/Isaac story, a bevy of questions open up about how the believer can accurately make a moral judgment against what Harris did.

If one believes God really did order Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, can the believer really say for sure that God didn't make a similar demand of Harris? A believer might say that it's obvious God didn't. After all, God spared Isaac at the last minute, so God's basically a decent guy after all (unless you're a Midianite, but that's another story). As there was no last-minute reprieve for Harris's kids, then QED, Harris couldn't have been acting under orders from God, because God doesn't ask people to kill their own children without stopping them in the nick of time to say he was only kidding.

But how could they know? And what if God hadn't reprieved Isaac? What would the believer think of God's little test of faith then? What would they think of Abraham, for committing the most abominable crime a parent can commit? Indeed, what do they think of Abraham now, for being willing to do it in the first place? Wouldn't a more courageous parent have stood up to God and said, "What, kill my own son for you? Fuck off. If that's the kind of test of faith I have to pass, I don't need you." Would a truly great God have punished Abraham for taking such a courageous stand of defiance, or recognized his courage and rewarded it? If God had smote him for it, wouldn't that just make God a sick, petty, bloodthirsty tyrant? I mean, we'd be rightly disgusted if we knew someone like Saddam Hussein had been going around ordering men to murder their own sons to prove their loyalty to him. Indeed, we'd make that one more pretext — and actually a kinda justifiable one, for a change — for his overthrow. So why is such a demand acceptable coming from God? Is it just that God gets to obey a different set of rules? Now isn't that "moral relativism"?...

And so on and so on. Stephen and Tracie, as usual, raise good points. While the expected reaction from mainstream Christians would be to brand Harris delusional, this is the sort of situation that a savvy atheist can use as a springboard to raise lots of questions about Christianity and belief in "Biblical morality" on a broad scale, and really force Christians to think about what they believe. "What if God spoke to you, clean and clear as he spoke to Abraham, demanding your child's life? What would you do? Can you be sure God would never ask that of you?"

The sad truth is that it shouldn't have to take the deaths of three innocent kids to make people investigate and question their choice to believe violent, morally dubious millennia-old fables and superstitions in the first place.

Reason's Greetings

Happy Winter Solstice, everyone! Bummer to those of you being slammed by snowstorms, but in Austin today, the weather's kind of pretty. 63° and mostly sunny.

In the comments, let's hear a little about what you'd like to see 2007 bring. An end to the war in the mideast may be a little unrealistic, but perhaps we can hope for some positivity here at home.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Remembering Carl

When I was young(er), Carl Sagan was something of a cultural anomaly: a celebrity scientist. You didn't see too many professional scientists representing on Johnny Carson and other mainstream media venues. Though I'm sure there were more, the only other scientist I can think of who was known by a large percentage of the public about 25 years ago would have been Isaac Asimov, and he was mostly known for his science fiction, actually a modest portion of his entire writing output.

To the young me, then as now a rabid fan of both science fiction and science fact, Carl's particular expertise in astronomy meant that there was a sound field of study underlying the adventure stories that I embraced for my entertainment. It's one thing to read a cool space opera by the likes of Gordon R. Dickson or Poul Anderson, and allow your imagination to soar as you dream about what it might actually be like to fly among the stars. But it's another thing entirely to have a guy like Sagan who could bring you back down to earth with real science, but do so without losing any of that sense of wonder — if anything, enhancing that sense of wonder by letting you see that the real universe was just as wondrous, if not moreso, than how it appears in even the best science fiction.

But in the years prior to his death, I got introduced to another, even more intriguing subject by Carl: skepticism.

His book The Demon-Haunted World was not the first work of skepticism out there, but it was one of the bestselling ones, and it was the first one that I read. I was, by my mid-teens, already leaning towards a rejection of the religious beliefs I'd been raised with. But as a youth I had no sophisticated arguments with which to defend my skeptical views. Nor was I aware of the extent to which not only superstition and irrationalism thrive in all cultures, but the degree to these problems threaten science itself. I still can never understand why people will reject sound scientific facts supported by strong evidence, while freely and joyfully choosing to believe all manner of bizarre claims and requiring no evidence or proof at all to do so. But they do, and Carl's book, with its remarkable, visually evocative title, brought the extent of the cultural crisis home to me. Our species is shrouded in darkness, a pall built up of centuries of accumulated superstition, fear, and gibberish. Science is there to light the way through this darkness toward understanding. And yet so many people find their darknesses comforting, and refuse even to look at the light.

I'm aware of the religious character of this metaphorical language, and I know Carl was too. That is, I think, why he used those images. In the hopes of penetrating the darkness of even one benighted True Believer, Carl understood the value of reaching them by speaking their language. It may have been a small effort; religiosity is as rampant today as ever and has more destructive power over people's minds and lives than any time since the Dark Ages. (I can imagine how profoundly sad 9/11 would have made Carl.)

But even this small effort mattered, because I think The Demon-Haunted World helped pave the way for my generation of atheists and skeptics and freethinkers, to launch our own causes, and to realize it's okay to speak your mind about these topics, and not let religion have a undeserved pass, simply because it's religion, and "we just don't talk about that kind of thing." Finally, Carl's work had a lot to do with creating a receptive marketplace in which books by atheist writers like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins could become bestsellers.

So on this tenth anniversary of Carl Sagan's death, I just want to tell him: Thanks. Thank you very much. Your legacy of reason and humanism is greater than you'll ever know, and it absolutely changed my life for the better.

(Posted as part of the Carl Sagan Memorial Blogathon.)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Now here's a new Pledge I could get behind

See? No church/state issues at all. And if we have to entrust the defense of our nation to an animal, I'm sure this little fellow would do a much better job than the Chimp.

I order you to buy this amazing CD

For years now, Negativland have been a collective of audio pranksters whose electronic, sample-laden musical constructs have taken the notion of satire into heretofore unexplored realms. Occasionally they've even gotten into legal hot water, at one point being sued by no less than U2. Among atheists, they may best be known for the outrageous "Christianity Is Stupid," which centers on a looped sample of a fundamentalist pastor blathering the song's title (taken, of course, shamelessly out of context from the sermon it was part of, but when you're a satirist, you get to be shameless).

Now Negativland have upped the anti-religion ante from that track on It's All in Your Head FM, a double live CD taken from two public performances of their weekly radio show Over the Edge. This is hilarious and yet strangely compelling stuff, and sharp listeners might spot similarities to some of Frank Zappa's work. But Negativland have a transgressive quality all their own.

This clip only barely scratches the surface of what's on this set. It really is required listening for atheists, so be like the cool kids and buy now. Hell, you could even pick one up for a Christmas present to a Christian friend of yours, depending on how badly you want them to hate you.

(PS: If the track doesn't play, odds are my daily bandwidth allotment has been exceeded. Just come back another time.)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Another day, another gay evangelical

First Haggard, now Paul Barnes, until yesterday pastor of the 2100-member Grace Chapel in Denver. Barnes confessed to fundagelical fudge-packin' and resigned his post, after — get this —

an anonymous phone call from a person who heard someone was threatening to go public with the names of Barnes and other evangelical leaders who engaged in homosexual behavior...

Yoiks! So there are more Colorado pastors infected with teh gay! Astounding. In my mind I see them dropping like ninepins in the biggest scandal since the Catholic Church Pedo Party of several years back.

Of course, there's a significant difference here, in that pedophilia is a vile crime, while there's nothing at all wrong with normal adult homosexuality. But the latter is very much the kind of activity that destroys the life of the average fundie, who has been indoctrinated by his religion to hate gays. And if the gay person in question happens to be oneself, then, well, one simply must hate oneself, mustn't one? What a lovely thing religion is. What joy and light in brings into people's lives.

I wonder how much more humiliation the Christian Right in this country can take. Let's hope it's lots and lots!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Film producers the Weinsteins bring a dirty bomb to the War on Christmas

Over at my film blog, Mr. Wagner's Final Cut, I have a snarky little post in which I express much amusement at the way Bob and Harvey Weinstein, the moguls formerly of Miramax and now releasing as The Weinstein Group, announced they were launching a new company to distribute "faith-based" films, only to follow it up by slating the stupid splatter horror movie Black Christmas for release on Christmas Day itself. At least one right-wing blogger has gone completely apeshit. One wonders, though — is this such a bad release strategy? And why, if Christians are really so offended by Hollywood's predilection for exploitive trash, aren't any them going to see The Nativity Story?

Enjoy the snark in full at the link.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Well, this is disappointing. And I try so hard!

How evil are you?

It must be because I didn't choose to answer more of the questions with "Canada".

Today on the show

It's my turn to co-host this afternoon, but I just clawed my way out of my first year of grad school, and as a result I'm in no mood to research an entire new topic today. I want to throw out a brief complaint about how boring the new Catholic radio station in town is, and I think I might throw out a little discussion on Theomatics, one of the first topics I ever did on the show six years ago. This subject popped up again because I got in a brief edit war about Theomatics with some apologist on Wikipedia.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Butterflies, science, and ID

There's an interesting post over at The Scientist in which Jack Woodall, billed as "director of the Nucleus for the Investigation of Emerging Infectious Diseases in the Institute of Medical Biochemistry at Brazil's Federal University of Rio de Janeiro," (pause for breath) uses the example of butterfly development and human-caused extinction patterns to poke holes in ID. The comments are about evenly distributed between evolution supporters, and ID supporters trotting out the usual argument-from-incredulity fallacies. I've chimed in, and am reproducing here a comment I posted in reply to another commenter, Jim Lord, who replied to my initial comment. Go have a look at the article and thread yourself, and if you can think of anything I missed, pitch in. They need more intelligent voices over there.

Jim Lord's comments are italicized, and we pick up our conversation already in progress. Many IDers in the comment thread attacked Woodall for making what they call straw man arguments against ID; they claim that just because design in nature may be, you know, horribly flawed, doesn't mean it isn't design. (Shades of Casey Luskin's immortal Ford Pinto analogy from a few days ago.) I pointed out this little detail:

On the face of it, this would seem a valid point. Until one butts up against the fact that Dembski and virtually every other ID proponent I've ever encountered is either Christian, Muslim, or some believer in a monotheistic god from the Abrahamic tradition. This God is said to be perfect in every way. So whence could come imperfect design?....

So I must now ask everyone slamming the article as attacking a "straw man" of ID because of the "imperfect design" approach: Are you people religious (whether Christian, Jew, or Muslim), and if so, do you believe your God is omniscient and omnipotent? If you answered "yes" to both those questions, and still think that ID isn't refuted by pointing out poor examples of design, then how do you reconcile imperfect design with a perfect designer? Or are you suggesting that God is, after all, imperfect? Or are you going WAY out on a limb and suggesting some designing agent OTHER than the God of your religion actually did all the designing (which would make you a polytheist)? And if so, how do you reconcile THAT with your religion?

Jim replies:

Therefore, true/inspired or not, religious texts such as the Bible and Qu'ran provide explanations for man's imperfection. (Else, why preach a need for a relationship with God?) The Bible describes man's fall and separation from God in Genesis.

Jim, what you call explanations I think can more accurately be termed rationalizations or justifications. It is a real problem for Christianity that it proposes, on the one hand, a perfect god, then must turn around and resort to all manner of tortuous rhetoric to explain how a perfect creator makes an imperfect creation. If God were truly omniscient, he'd have foreseen the imperfections in his creation and either rectified them or chosen not to make those mistakes at all. That he didn't either indicates this deity either isn't so perfect after all (then why worship it?), or, meant for all of life's imperfections, including evil (there goes omnibenevolence), to be part of the Grand Plan, or whatever.

This is the crux of the Problem of Evil that demolishes Christianity's O3G (omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent) concept of God. Despite two millennia of highly motivated theodicy, this dilemma has never been successfully addressed. And its ramifications do impact the validity of intelligent design as both a scientific and theological concept.

In the famous opening passage of the Gospel of John, the Bible makes an ontological argument for the existence of God, which is supported by other passages. "In the beginning was the 'Word'", the logos, the reason of itself.

The opening of John isn't an argument at all, but a series of tautological assertions that are hermetically sealed against rational inquiry. "Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made." Does that apply to God himself? If God belongs to the information set labeled "all things," then did God make himself? Or did something else make God? Or is God "unmade"? If so, whence came God, and what was he doing for the infinite span of time before he decided to create a universe? And, knowing via his omniscience he was going to create a universe someday, why not do so before he eventually did so? And if you are willing to accept the existence of at least one unmade thing, why stop at one?

You see how God fails scientifically as any kind of concept with explanatory power. The unanswerable questions are endless. Invoking God as the explanation for our universe is simply an act of trying to solve a mystery with an infinitely greater mystery.

Ancient holy books that attempt to define their deities into existence by rhetorical fiat do not exactly qualify as scientific treatises on the nature of life and the universe. After all, how does one look at the claims made in John 1 and decide they are any more or less valid a creation story as, say, this one?

Unfortunately, just as religious leaders turn to science to prove their faith, scientists often resort to half-baked theological arguments.

I actually tend to see more apologists using half-baked theological arguments than scientists, frankly. Not to mention holy books themselves — see John 1.

Faith cannot be fostered with fact, but just because it is faith does not necessarily mean it isn't true.

Maybe, but that is not a scientific statement. If ID supporters wish their alternative "theory" to be taken seriously by the scientific community, they're going to have to do better than "just because it's faith based doesn't mean it isn't true." They're going to have to make with the evidence for the Designer, and it is going to have to be evidence every bit as detailed as what science currently has for evolution across multiple disciplines. What nature of being is this designer? Is it bigger than a breadbox? Is it alive, in the sense we understand an organism to be alive? Does it have metabolic processes? Where does it live, if not in this universe? What exact mechanisms does it employ when it creates universes, and how does it employ them? Constantly attacking scientists for making alleged "straw man" criticisms of ID is pretty dishonest of the ID camp, when they aren't even beginning to try to address these questions and explain their designer in an intelligible way (except to say it isn't "necessarily" the Biblical God whenever they find themselves addressing a judge or school board).

Science, by definition, is a process of empirical study that can only draw conclusions based on observation of evidence. Faith is fine for religionists, but it just has no place in the scientific method. If you admit that "faith cannot be fostered with fact," which I take to mean that religion's claims cannot be examined scientifically, then you must agree that faith-based concepts like ID simply don't get to join the scientific least until some fostering facts come along to give it actual substance.

Monday, December 04, 2006

We're the U2 of atheism!

In addition to Mojoey's big ol' atheist blogroll, we are proud to be added to The Best of Net Atheism, one of those Top-10 or Top-20 or Top-50 type sites where the more click-throughs you send them, the higher you jump on the charts, and the more people click back to you to check you out. Today we're at #12, which I may proudly boast makes us the U2 of atheism! For you see, U2's new CD compilation U218: Singles is the #12 album this week, hence the chartish kinship. "In God's Country" indeed!

So what that means, gang, is that whenever you visit us, do take a moment to click on the link in the sidebar under Blogrolls. Only with your help can we step up from being atheism's U2 to being its — erm — Jay-Z.

On second thought...

Wait...he's bangin' Beyonce.

Yeah, screw it. Go ahead and click.

Snake oil on a plane! Hinn sleaze flying higher than ever.

Benny's just bought God a new Gulfstream jet, and he wants his flock of dupes to pay for it. Ay-mayzing. Check the transparently manipulative language in the sales pitch here and boggle that anyone's brain could be so calcified as to buy it.

...Now we must pay the remainder of the down payment, and I am asking the Lord Jesus to speak to 6,000 of my precious partners to sow a seed of $1,000 in the next ninety days. And I am praying, even as I write this letter, that you will be one of them!

I know that as you obey the Lord, He will open heaven wide and cause a mighty harvest of blessings to descend upon your life and all that you do!

Take special note of the phrasing, "I know that as you obey the Lord..." This bit of smarm is very much in keeping with the language of something called NLP, or neuro-linguistic programming, which is all about how to phrase sales pitches to rubes using careful turns of phrase that make them think they're doing something other than what you're really trying to get them to do (buy your product, have sex with you), and that the decision to do it is their idea, that they arrived at all on their own because it was really the only sensible thing to do, and why would they even consider not doing it? He wants his "precious" partners — the ones who are already forking over loads of cash they can probably barely spare in the first place, so that Benny can live it up in places like this — to "sow a seed" of six million dollars for his fancy jet, and he's equating doing this with "obeying the Lord". Confronted with meretriciousness and hubris of this degree, I don't know whether to tip my hat in grudging respect, or buy an ad banner on the Al Jazeera website seeking shoe bombers.

That last bit was a joke.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Another note to new visitors

If you've never seen this blog or other projects by the Atheist Community of Austin, please take a moment to drop by Iron Chariots and see if it's something you'd be interested in participating with.

Iron Chariots is a counter-apologetics wiki, aiming to be the definitive collection of arguments used by atheists. If you're inclined to contribute, then please feel free to create an account. If you simply find some pages useful, help promote IC by posting links to argumentation pages in your own online discussions.

How do you spell "scumsucking filth"? B-E-N-N-Y H-I-N-N.

Yes, yes, we all know what a vile charlatan this clownish "faith healer" is. But to see what this son of a bitch does with your own eyes, to see how cold-bloodedly he exploits the hope of the truly desperate and pathetic while whooping it up in $10 million mansions and $4000-a-night hotel suites, just makes you sick to your stomach. This kind of hard-hitting exposé, from the CBC news program The Fifth Estate, is the kind of badass investigative journalism America hasn't seen since the Watergate scandal, and which we're not likely to see in this day and age, when conservative mouthpieces own the U.S. airwaves and they're only too willing to pander to the most egregious forms of religious lunacy. This runs 42 minutes but it's worth every one. Bask in how low one man can go. All in the name of Jesus.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

We ♥ all our new readers! This means you!

Welp, this is what a link from Pharyngula does for you. We certainly don't mind tripling our uniques in one day. Hopefully all of you will enjoy the AE blog enough to bookmark us, or at least take some hearty swings at us (or give us much love!) in the comments. Also, my article "Christians' Moral Blind Spot" is part of this week's Carnival of the Godless (hosted by Hellbound Allee), and some spirited commentary has gone on there as well. Anyway, thanks for dropping by, and we return you now to our regularly scheduled blasphemy.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Left Behind game review

Courtesy of alert Non-Prophets listener Shilling, the first major review I've seen of Left Behind: Eternal Forces. I just loved it right from the first paragraph:

"Don't mock Left Behind: Eternal Forces because it's a Christian game. Mock it because it's a very bad game."

Atheism is responsible for mass murder?

"Atheism, not religion, is the real force behind the mass murders of history" is the title of a recent opinion piece posted at the Christian Science Monitor. The author, Dinesh D'Souza, feels that the recent books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and others exaggerate...

"the crimes attributed to religion, while ignoring the greater crimes of secular fanaticism."

After making that accusation, the author goes on to down-play religious atrocities while making the unsupported assertion that many more people have died in "the name of atheism". This sort of character assassination is a prime example of why I openly identify myself as an atheist and why I feel that it's important for us to vigilantly rebut the lies and misinformation spread by fearful zealots. They attempt to prop up their beliefs with fallacious appeals to the dire consequences they're certain will occur if we reject fanciful claims about gods. Consequences which every bit of evidence continues to refute.

Let's dig in and expose the lies and fallacies for what they are...

The first major claim is that atheists (specifically Harris and Dawkins) are exaggerating the crimes attributed to religion. In response to this, the author claims that fewer than 25 people were killed in the Salem witch trials and that 10-110,000 died in the Spanish inquisition. If we assume that those numbers are correct, how does that prove his assertion that these atheist authors are exaggerating? Did they use different numbers? Of course not. If they had, the author surely would have provided those numbers to show how exaggerated their claims were.

There were only 12 killed in the Columbine school shooting. Does that mean it wasn't a tragedy? Is the death toll more critical than the circumstances surrounding the incident? Why does D'Souza think his low-20's number should diminish, in any way, the nature of the vile injustice committed in Salem?

D'Souza is dangling a red herring in front of us, hoping that we'll be so distracted by the facts that he's presented that we'll completely forget what he's actually claiming - that atheists misrepresented these facts. Instead of making his case that these atheists are lying, he's completely missed all the relevant points and opted to simply down-play these injustices as "not so bad" and expands this misdirection with the tired old appeal that these incidents occurred long ago.

I'm not sure why, but when faced with undeniable evidence of the harm caused by religion one common response is that religion "isn't all bad". Neither is heroin, but we generally discourage people from becoming regular users who allow it to influence or define the decisions they make. If your most salient defense of your beliefs is that they "aren't so bad", you've already sold out. You're either a junky or supporting the dealers who supply junkies.

Does Dinesh sincerely believe that Dawkins, Harris and others are actively complaining about the Salem witch trials or Spanish inquisition? I doubt it. It's more likely that he's aware of the great social injustices and atrocities that are the direct result of religious belief and has wisely opted not to attempt to defend them. These atheist authors aren't outraged over centuries-old murders, they're railing against modern injustices which are the direct result of religious belief. They're attempting to point out the divisive, destructive and delusional mentality that religion fosters.

The second major claim is that Harris and Dawkins have ignored crimes of secular fanaticism. Based on the points that Mr. D'Souza makes on this issue, I have to conclude that he's completely in error. Both of those authors have spoken about the sort of crimes he's referring to and provided clear responses to silly accusations like the following:

"In the name of creating their version of a religion-free utopia, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong produced the kind of mass slaughter that no Inquisitor could possibly match. Collectively these atheist tyrants murdered more than 100 million people."

Whether or not Hitler was an atheist is a subject of much debate. He repeatedly identified himself as a Catholic both publicly and privately. He was supported by the Catholic church and the Pope described Hitler's opposition to Russia as "highminded gallantry in defense of the foundations of Christian culture."

Even if the author is correct about Hitler (a point we have no reason to concede) he lists those men as "atheist tyrants". Was atheism the justification for their actions? Were these murders done "in the name of atheism", as the author claims? Absolutely not.

At the beginning of his article, he blamed these murders on "secular fanaticism" and now he's blaming atheism. What is "secular fanaticism"? I'm not completely sure, but D'Souza does nothing to justify the bait-and-switch he performs by equating "atheism" with "secular fanaticism". Should we equate "religious extremist" with "Christian" or "Muslim"? As a thinking person, I certainly see a much stronger tie between the two (as I see no way to justify fanatic actions from non-belief), but I don't think it's fair to portray them as equivalent.

Atheism is, simply, the lack of belief in a god. There are no tenets, no dogma, no rituals, no common socio-political beliefs, no agendas, no ethical code, no "holier than..." or "better than" — there's nothing within atheism that could support the claims he's making. Those tyrants and murderers didn't kill people "in the name of atheism" and atheism wasn't the cause of their actions.

Without a causal link between atheism and the evil actions of these men, what we really have is coincidental correlation. The author could have labeled them "male tyrants" and come closer to a causal link than his preferred label of "atheist tyrants". The actions of those men weren't carried out on behalf of atheism or caused by atheism - they were carried out for reasons that transcend atheism.

D'Souza has done nothing to support his notion that atheism is responsible for great evil - he's simply asserted that it is true and tap-danced his way around the issue.

In the case of the Salem witch trials, the cause of the action was religious beliefs. The Bible says 'thou shalt not suffer a witch to live' and the people persecuting witches used that verse as a justification for their action — that is a causal relationship. Whether they killed 1, 25 or 25,000 hardly matters. The same holds true for other religious atrocities including the faith-based initiative we commonly refer to as 9-11.

D'Souza fails to support his accusations about Harris and Dawkins as well as the claim made in the title of his article: that atheism is the real force behind historical mass murders. Given the actual state of affairs it's clear that a much stronger case can be made for the claim that the only people who have been killed "in the name of atheism" are those people who were killed, by religious zealots, for being atheists.

Where are the atheist suicide bombers? Where is the low-quality video of a beheading carried out by an atheist activist? Where are the atheists who string up non-atheists and burn large 'A'-frames on the lawns of Christians? Where are the budget cuts and gag rules that prohibit funding to clinics that mention abstinence?

Whenever we see a prominent religious figure publicly disgraced or read about women who slaughter their children for their god, the most common excuse is that those people weren't "real" believers. In the case of Christianity, the Big Book of Multiple Choice (also known as The Bible) includes verses that serve as warnings about false believers which are conveniently tossed around on these occasions.

What we've learned is simple: If someone does something that makes a given religion look bad - they weren't a "true believer". Until they do, they're probably a true believer, but there's no way to tell. Hopefully, more people will realize this and we'll finally have a majority that stops thinking in terms of "what you claim to believe" and focuses on what we do, what is true, and what is most beneficial for the survival of our species.

This sort of 'heads I win, tails you lose' mentality is rampant among believers. It's a coping mechanism that prevents them from ever having to deal with the harsh truths of reality. Their general misconceptions about atheism are the result of a desperate need to personify evil and shift blame. Kent Hovind, in his creationist propaganda includes an entire lecture which hangs the responsibility for all of the evil in the world around the neck of Charles Darwin. Evolutionary theory is, in his mind, the root of all evil.

Dinesh D'Souza is attempting something similar here. He's desperately attempting to focus our attention on anything other than the man behind the curtain. While his attempts are as laughable and feeble as the great and powerful Oz, they're hardly as endearing. While his prose may be better, he's no different from the Internet forum troll who calls atheists evil and compares them to Hitler. His article, and the articles of those who echo his claims, may be the best evidence against his claims.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The whole God = morality thing

In the comments to the Warren Jeffs post of a few days back, an anonymous poster keeps asking us how we, as godless heathens, can possibly judge Jeffs' actions as immoral because, being atheists and all, we obviously must live lives of pure moral anarchy where anything goes, right? You guessed it — it's the old "no god, no morals" argument one more time. I thought it would be instructive to our commenter, as well as anyone else still uninformed enough to think this way, to devote to the topic a post of its own.

We have often heard from believers the whole "no Bible, no morals" pitch, and frankly I continue to be surprised that anyone in this day and age, even amongst the religious, could still be so naive as to adhere to it, as it demonstrates both an ignorance of the function of moral precepts in society as well as the actual content of the Bible. I also would have thought the recent scandals involving such evangelical leading lights as Ted Haggard and Kent Hovind should have put to rest the idiotic notion that religious belief is some kind of guarantee of moral superiority. (Indeed, the very fact that Warren Jeffs himself is a religious believer and not an atheist ought to say something.) But I guess some folks never got the message. I'll address specific points in Anonymous's replies in order to rectify his lack of understanding. (Note: because of Anonymous's anonymity, I will default to assuming Anonymous is male for the sake of ease.)

To Tracie he said:

A lot of I's and my's going on here. If you don't believe in objective truth then I guess it's subjective. It's just based on personal whims and preferences. In other words, someone can easily say to you who cares what you say is truth because my truth is different.

Someone could easily say that, but they'd be full of crap, because no one lives in complete isolation from other individuals. Humans are social beings, and thus our every action has consequences that affect not only ourselves but those around us. This is an observable fact and there for any thinking being to comprehend and evaluate. People who go around saying "my truth is different" and then act upon that precept are generally considered sociopathic.

To be honest, the only people I've ever heard claim that there is no such thing as objective truth have been Christians. I'm not suggesting this is an opinion held by all Christians, only that the only people who've ever expressed it to me have been Christian; no atheist in my experience has ever told me there's no objective truth. I once had a pastor tell me "truth is relative," with a straight face, and phrases like "everything is a belief" pop up with surprising regularity in debates with believers, usually when you've just demonstrated to them how some aspect of their belief system doesn't stand up to scientific or rational scrutiny.

Anyway, Anonymous's point seems to be that either a person gets a list of rules out of an ancient holy book, and is thus moral, or they don't, and they aren't, and can only make decisions based on "whims and preferences." This strikes me as a baffling way for someone to learn morality, as it offers no understanding of the precepts being taught, and in fact discourages intellectual involvement in moral development. A person might practice "moral" behavior at a superficial level if they go out of their way to follow a list of Biblical dos and don'ts. But they cannot be expected to genuinely understand the difference between right and wrong; why they must behave they way they've been told to behave.

What Tracie was explaining in her initial reply to Anonymous is that she can rationally observe the consequences of certain actions, and make decisions about the morality or immorality of those actions based on her observations. She was telling him she doesn't need a list of rules in a holy book to tell her a thing is wrong when she can readily see this fact for herself. It's a little process called "thinking," and it's quite a different thing than "whim."

The rest of Anonymous's response to Tracie shows he really hasn't the slightest clue what she was trying to tell him (Anonymous also seems not to understand human interaction), and I'll let her respond to Anonymous from here on out.

To me Anonymous asked:

I never said it was arbitrary [to condemn Jeffs for his actions], I wanted to know why it isn't arbritrary according to your world view?

Anonymous obviously doesn't understand my "worldview," and I have a pretty strong suspicion that what he thinks my "worldview" is, is comprised of stereotypical notions about atheists that have been fed to him as part of his religious upbringing.

Reason is not an abritrary process. Observing the consequences of actions, thinking about what you've observed, and arriving at conclusions rationally is anything but arbitrary.

The irony of Anonymous's position is that he's either unaware or unwilling to admit that he arrives at moral decisions by the same process I do: he thinks about them. If, as he says, he considers the Bible to be the "objective standard," (more on this in a minute) then how does Anonymous arrive at the decision that its moral precepts are the correct ones? When Anonymous reads "Thou shalt not kill," and thinks, "Hey, that sounds like a good idea," where does that decision originate from and how does Anonymous account for it (to paraphrase his own question to me)? How does he know it's a better idea to follow that precept rather than reject it? If he replies, "God instilled that understanding in me," then why is the Bible necessary? Why would God have instilled understanding in Anonymous and not everyone else?

The fact is that whether you prefer to get your morals out of the Bible (a bad choice, as I'll shortly demonstrate), or by observing actions, learning from those observations and just approaching life rationally, you will arrive at moral decisions by the same process: thinking.

Anonymous goes on to say:

Well, now your [sic] begging the question, but since you asked I'll tell you. I presuppose that the Bible is the objective standard. This behavior is clearly wrong according to Bible.

Bzzt! Wrong answer. This behavior is clearly not wrong according to the Bible. There are numerous instances where the God of the Bible condones and even advocates rape, incest and murder. Indeed almost the entire Old Testament is a nonstop orgy of God killing, killing, and killing some more. But here are some salient passages.

  • Genesis 19:30-38: Lot's daughters get him drunk and have sex with him to "preserve the family line" through incest. God does not punish them for this, or express any kind of disapproval. So if God and his Biblical rules are the "objective moral standard," why is incest considered profoundly immoral by most everyone in our society today, including Bible-believing Christians?
  • Numbers 31: This entire chapter is a nightmare of rape, carnage and murder. God tells his armies to massacre the Midianites, which they do with gusto. In verses 17-18, he orders boys and non-virginal women to be killed, but he allows the Israelites to keep the female virgins for rape purposes.
  • Deuteronomy 22:23-24: Rapists get stoned to death here for violating betrothed virgins...but so do their victims if they don't scream for help. Yow! Tough beans if he was, like, covering your mouth, sweetheart!
  • Deuteronomy 22:28-29: A little further down we see the very lenient punishment for rapists of unbetrothed virgins — they get to buy their victims at a blue-light special price of 50 shekels! What a deal!

Now I ask you — this is an "objective moral standard" to live by?

So to conclude — Anonymous asks:

I wonder how you can possitively assert something is wrong or right according to your world view?

Because my worldview is based on rational thought and observation of consequences. Contrast with a person whose moral decisions are explained by saying "Because the Bible tells me so." Where is the understanding of right and wrong?


Do you believe murder and rape is wrong? If you say yes then how can you assert this position from a morally relative position?

As I have demonstrated, my position is not "morally relative" in the way Anonymous thinks it is. Now I ask Anonymous: do you believe rape and murder is wrong? Then how can you assert this from a position of obeying a holy book in which rape and murder are either openly advocated or only very leniently punished by God?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Christian Coalition president booted for not being enough of a hayta

From Friday's Austin American Statesman:

The Rev. Joel Hunter of Longwood, Fla., said he quit as president-elect of the group founded by evangelist Pat Robertson because he realized he would be unable to broaden the agenda beyond opposing abortion and gay marriage. He had hoped to include issues such as easing poverty and saving the environment.

"These are issues that Jesus would want us to care about," Hunter said. "They pretty much said, 'These issues are fine, but they're not our issues; that's not our base,' " Hunter said of the group's leadership.

No, Jesus wouldn't want us to do anything wimpified and librul like helping the poor or giving a damn about the health of the ecosystem. Undermining women's health care and a pathological hatred of gays — that's what Jesus would do!

The article ends with a brief, obvious note about the once-mighty Christian Coalition's increasing irrelevance. Good riddance.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Warren Jeffs is one creepy-looking motherfucker

Check this dude out. Drink him in: the scrawny chicken neck, the leering eyes, the oddly bifurcated chin-butt. Mainly it's the leering eyes, though. I mean, he looks like he's scoping out an underage girl right there in the courtroom, while everyone is waiting for the judge to emerge from his chambers. When parents talk to their kids about not speaking to strangers, this is exactly the kind of man they mean.

And yet, this man ran a fringe cult of Mormon separatists who practiced a virtually slave-like form of polygamy in which men north of 50 traded teenage brides like baseball cards, with the only thing invalidating that analogy being that one doesn't fuck baseball cards. How, I wonder, does the cult-follower mind develop? With all of these wacko groups you see, they seem to have a leader — whether Jeffs, or David Koresh (who rarely indulged in the habit of bathing, yet managed to get all his male followers to hand over their wives to him), or Jim Jones — who, to anyone on the outside with a rational brain, is clearly a bad, creepy dude at first sight. How is it that these people cannot see what must be obvious to anyone else? It saddens me to imagine a mind so confused and dysfunctional in its irrationalism, that the person possessing it will gravitate towards any manipulative, sick weirdo in the hopes of finding some peace and direction in their lives.

I'll be too glad for words when this Jeffs perv is put away. Let's hope it's for the rest of his born days.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Monday hilarity: ID proponent compares God to designers of exploding Ford Pinto!

In case you haven't been keeping up with this: Casey Luskin, a lawyer whom PZ Myers has side-splittingly described as the Discovery Institute's "attack mouse," has been spending the last week or so attempting to refute an article by bestselling science writer Carl Zimmer in the 11/06 issue of National Geographic, in which Zimmer discusses how evolutionary biologists are learning more and more about how complexity develops in organisms. Luskin offered an increasingly lame series of rebuttals, which Zimmer has been calmly taking apart. The whole thing has culminated in Luskin's responding to Zimmer's explanations about the flawed design of the eye with this desperate howler:

Was the Ford Pinto, with all its imperfections revealed in crash tests, not designed?

Seriously. He actually wrote that. Oh well, so much for, you know, God's omnipotence and all that. Oh, that's right, the ID movement isn't about promoting Christianity in the schools, ri-i-ight! I keep forgetting that.

"Christ is indispensable to any scientific theory, even if its practitioners do not have a clue about him." — William Dembski, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology (1999), page 210.

Ah well, enjoy a little of God's indispensable handiwork below.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Religion motivated millionaire "Secret Santa" to acts of charity (but not in the way you'd think)

CNN today has the story of 58-year-old Larry Stewart, a communications industry tycoon who's been secretly handing out gifts of cash to random strangers during the holiday season. He's been known as the "Secret Santa," and has outed himself because he's sick with cancer and wanted folks to know who he was and what he's done in the hopes of inspiring further acts of random kindness.

Stewart certainly seems a swell chap, though one could debate the wisdom*, if not the unimpeachable altruism, of walking around handing out Benjamins to anyone and everyone. But what I found interesting about the story was this little tidbit, which is another piece of ammo you can whip out the next time some Christian tells you you have to be Christian to be moral and treat people kindly. Note: the article doesn't specifically say Stewart is non-religious himself, but it does say this:

[Poverty] was a feeling he came to know in the early 70s when he was living out of his yellow Datsun 510. Hungry and tired, Stewart mustered the nerve to approach a woman at a church and ask for help.

The woman told him the person who could help was gone for the day, and Stewart would have to come back the next day.

"As I turned around, I knew I would never do that again," Stewart said.

So basically, when Stewart was young and broke, he went to a church, because we're all programmed to think that churches are places of charity that will eagerly help the unfortunate. And he got told to piss off. Oh sure, sure, the woman might have sincerely meant for him to come back the next day, and he would indeed receive help. But odds are she was giving him a politely worded brushoff after sizing him up and categorizing him as "useless, jobless loser". And so Stewart went away, vowing never to be like the person he met at the church.

Now I'll grant some folks may interpret the story a little differently. They might say that Stewart left the situation embarrassed at having asked for charity in the first place, and determined to get himself together and succeed on his own. But there's no indication Stewart had no motivation to do that in the first place; he was simply caught in a bad patch in life, as so many people are, and was looking for a temporary lift to tide him over. If the woman at the church had generously given him a donation, would he have been less likely to go on to make his fortune in cable and telecom businesses? I don't think so. In life there are driven, goal-oriented people and there are ones who aren't. The ones who are driven and motivated are more likely to make it to some degree in life, period, though both are equally likely to have hard times when starting out. I suspect that Stewart's describing a bit of resentment and disappointment at the woman's treatment of him. And besides, if Stewart were simply embarrassed at himself for asking for charity, he'd hardly be likely to be so sympathetic to others needing it after he'd become a self-made man, that he'd make a hobby of handing out hundred-dollar bills every year.

Stewart didn't need the payoff of a godly reward to motivate him to bring a little light into people's lives. He just did it to see the smiles on their faces and to know he'd helped another human being. And his cash handouts certainly had a much more beneficial, tangible effect on the lives of the people he helped than any Christian who'd have told those people, "I'll pray for you!"

* — I won't give panhandlers on street corners money, for instance, though I have on occasion given them food or drink. In randomly giving away cash, you may be unwittingly funding someone's habit. And in the case of panhandlers that's true more often than not.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Toys for Tots flip-flops on talking Jesus dolls

Toys for Tots has announced it has decided to take the talking Jesus dolls from Christian toymakers one2believe, their spokesman announcing, "Toys for Tots has found appropriate places for these items." I'm assuming they don't mean the city dump, so have they in fact figured out a way to ensure that these dolls only end up with Christian families? Or is this just simple cowardice in the face of Christian outrage over being prevented from proseltyzing everyone's kids whether their parents approve or not?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Polish exchange student gains firsthand experience of Christian Love

Here is one of the most alarming little tales you're likely to read today. It's short but not so sweet. 19-year-old Michael Gromek came to America on an exchange program, and what were the first words out of his host family's mouths?

'Child, our Lord sent you half-way around the world to bring you to us.' At that moment I just wanted to turn round and run back to the plane.

Dude! I bet! It got worse. Much worse.

For example, every Monday my host family would gather around the kitchen table to talk about sex. My host parents hadn't had sex for the last 17 years because — so they told me — they were devoting their lives to God. They also wanted to know whether I drank alcohol. I admitted that I liked beer and wine. They told me I had the devil in my heart.

My host parents treated me like a five-year-old. They gave me lollipops. They woke me every Sunday morning at 6:15 a.m., saying 'Michael, it's time to go to church.' I hated that sentence. When I didn't want to go to church one morning, because I had hardly slept, they didn't allow me to have any coffee.


TAM 5: Yup, I'm going

It's official; mailed off my registration today. I look forward to blogging from it. A couple of friends went last year and confirmed its awesomeness, so I'm a little stoked.

If you've been thinking about going — and, like me, are prepared just to say "the hell with it" and drop the money — registration information is here.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The ongoing tragic story of Christian persecution

A report at CNN today describes the latest incident sure to be trumpeted by Dobson and Wildmon and those pushing the notion that Christians are a sad, persecuted minority in the heathen librul Gomorrah that is America today.

Every year the Marine reserves do a "Toys for Tots" program for the holidays, to collect toys so that poor kids can have lots of Christmas and holiday presents. The very model of a wonderful charity.

This year, TFT has rejected a talking Jesus doll offered by Christian toymakers one2believe. They make toys with the express purpose of religiously indoctrinating helpless little ones who, of course, lack the critical thinking skills to evaluate the Bible stories they're being taught. As the saying goes, give 'em the boy (girl) for seven years, and they'll give you back the man (woman). The Jesus doll they offered said such anxiety-building homilies as "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."

There have been incidents where government organizations — schools and the like — have perhaps gone overboard in trying to maintain church-state separation, motivated more by the frantic hopes of avoiding lawsuits than by any honest concern for government neutrality in the matter of private belief. Keeping coercive prayer out of schools is one thing, but telling teachers they can't wear cross necklaces is quite another. (Note: I don't have a specific link for an incident such as this; however, there was an episode of Hannity and Colmes I saw some years ago on which a teacher claimed she had been asked to take off cross jewelry, so I assume it's happened at least once.) So it's important for those of us who support separation not merely to advocate the position, but then educate the public and its officials as to what constitutes unconstitutional religion-meddling.

But here, TFT is absolutely correct.

Toys are donated to kids based on financial need and "we don't know anything about their background, their religious affiliations," said Bill Grein, vice president of Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, in Quantico, Virginia.

As a government entity, Marines "don't profess one religion over another," Grein said Tuesday. "We can't take a chance on sending a talking Jesus doll to a Jewish family or a Muslim family."

The company's reaction is one of predictable cluelessness.

"The idea was for them to be three-dimensional teaching tools for kids," [Michael] La Roe said. "I believe as a churchgoing person, anyone can benefit from hearing the words of the Bible."

Yeah dude, and Muslims believe that anyone can benefit from bowing to Mecca every day. But you wouldn't want someone sending your kid a "three-dimensional teaching tool" delivering that lesson, would you?

What is it with some Christians that they often seem to think they're the only people in the world, or at least the only ones with a point of view that matters? I certainly don't expect La Roe to learn a lesson about respect for others from this. It will only be a matter of time before the whine of persecution is heard across the land again.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Christians' moral blind spot

Numerous essays have already been written, in the never-ending war of words between Christians and atheists, over the supposed moral supremacy of theism, particularly Christian theism. Without belief in a God, we are admonished time and again, it is impossible for one to develop a sound framework for moral behavior. In this essay I intend to show that the opposite is in fact true: that there is no rational basis from which one can develop a sound basis for morals that is rooted in the worship of the Christian God. (I'll leave the question of whether or not you can do it based upon the worship of any of the hundreds of thousands of other gods humanity has created over the centuries to someone else. Life's too short.)

There is one crushing moral dilemma facing Christians who try to argue for their God's being the source of all that is moral in life: the Doctrine of Hell.

At the core of Christianity is the belief that, in order to ascend to Heaven after death and enjoy a life of eternal bliss and joy, one must be a Christian. No other creed or belief system need apply. One must not only attend a Christian church; one must also answer the altar call, go up before the congregation, profess belief in the divinity of Jesus, his resurrection, and eventual (any day now, really) second coming. I remember from my youth, when I attended a Baptist church in Houston, the pressure to perform this little ritual was intense. Failure to do so is punishable by an eternity of hell. Good works are immaterial. Membership in the club matters over all.

It was not until my adulthood that I began to realize something that I never would have even entertained as a wisp of a thought in my churchgoing days: Christianity's entire sales-pitch involving conversion is immoral to the point of being deeply evil. And you just can't get morals out of an immoral, much less evil, belief system.

Fundamentally it is an act of terrorism: turn or burn. A demand is being made upon humanity by God. God offers you what Christians call a "choice," but which is really an ultimatum: worship Me, accept My Son as Savior, or else suffer the torments of hell for all eternity. What Christians can not, will not, face is the fact that such a "choice" is no different whatsoever from the modus operandi of the Mafia, whose "protection rackets" in the days of tommy guns and fedoras—in which gangs of thugs would troop into Chicago bars and offer owners the "choice" between paying the protection money or having their businesses Molotoved—have become a part of American folklore. The Christian God is the school bully who extorts your lunch money as a means of being persuaded not to beat you up at recess. But Christians can not see the connection between these behaviors. As George H. Smith writes in his seminal work Atheism: The Case Against God, "There is nothing the Christian will accept as evidence of his God's evil."

How, then, do Christians customarily deal with the Doctrine of Hell and the moral dilemma it introduces? I can only go by my experiences debating Christians in the years I've been on The Atheist Experience TV show, but it boils down to this: If Christians don't want to be faced with a moral dilemma involving their beliefs, they won't be. Christians have a remarkable capacity for not being bothered by aspects of their belief system they don't want to be bothered by. This is what I call the Christians' moral blind spot. And it's a handy blind spot, in that—unlike that nasty one over your right shoulder they always warn you to check in drivers' ed—this one can be moved around at will, to shield the Christian from anything unpleasant that they may be forced to face regarding their God and their beliefs.

The blind spot is what allows Christians to demand that the Ten Commandments be mounted in granite in every school and courthouse in the country, and yet, when you bring up the disturbing old divine laws regarding rapists being allowed to purchase their victims from their fathers for fifty shekels, or beating children, they'll wave their hands and say, "Oh, pshaw—that's just the Old Testament!"

And the blind spot is what allows Christians not to see that their God's ultimatum, his "choice," is no different than any terroristic threat of violence that anyone else might make.

Indeed, Christians' defense of their God's behavior in this context will expose you to some of the most perverse twisting of ideas you're likely to hear. Christians will tell you, with a straight face, that the fact God is willing to offer you this choice, that he doesn't force you to choose one way or another, that he is in effect offering you a ticket out of hell, proves how loving he is. Furthermore, if you make the choice not to become Christian, then God will respect your freedom to choose, and the fact that you've just condemned yourself to an eternity of torture is your fault!

The depth to which this belief is utterly deranged should be readily apparent to anyone with a shred of respect for reason or human dignity. Using the contorted reasoning this belief employs, one could argue that a gang member who walks up to you, sticks a .45 in your eyeball, and offers you the "choice" of giving him your wallet or getting your brains blown out is doing it because he loves you. And if you choose not to hand over your money, well, it's just your own fault, isn't it.

It never occurs to the Christian that God's "choice" is not a choice at all, but an ultimatum. It never occurs to them that to threaten someone with violence for not complying with an ultimatum is de facto immoral even when God does it. Because if it isn't wrong when God does it, who's to say it's wrong when anyone else—Osama bin Laden, Adolf Hitler—does it? How can a God dictate moral absolutes to humanity when he himself freely behaves in an immoral manner? Do Christians really think that a "do as I say, not as I do" God constitutes any sort of moral authority? How can I, or anybody, get our morals, our sense of right and wrong, from a God who tortures people who don't worship him forever? A moral being would not torture anyone for any reason for two seconds, much less eternity. A moral being would not present you with a bogus "choice" between Heaven and Hell in the first place. And a moral being would not demand your worship! How can Christians claim their God is the source of my morals, when every examination of Christian beliefs as regards salvation and the Doctrine of Hell paints the picture of a deeply immoral—indeed, evil—God?

The blind spot. That's how they can do it. That handy moral blind spot is always there, protecting the Christian from thinking thoughts he should not think, facing facts he doesn't want to face, being troubled by anything he doesn't want to be troubled by. The Christian God is the luckiest God anyone ever invented; he rules with absolute authority but not a shred of responsibility, and he threatens his believers with eternal torment if they stray from him, only to be hailed as "loving" for it. Thanks, folks, but I've been fortunate enough to have the light of reason shine through my blind spot...and it's that selfsame reason that I use to determine my morals in life, not the dictates of some jealous, angry, vengeful, immoral—and thankfully, imaginary—God.

Elton John slams religion, but unwisely

I have boundless respect for atheist celebrities who are willing to come out and risk their fame and public goodwill by expressing their views. Granted, this is doubtless easier for atheist celebs who happen to be gay and out, because they've already leapt one hurdle, so to speak.

Still, Elton John's comments about religion this week will no doubt be snapped up by the "we're so persecuted" camp in the fundie world that all us eeebul godless heathens are out to throw them in the Gulag. And I see that as being a little on the counterproductive side.

"From my point of view, I would ban religion completely. Organized religion doesn't seem to work. It turns people into really hateful lemmings and it's not really compassionate."

The minute you use the word "ban," you leave your opponents an opening to make the blanket claim that all atheists are anti-freedom, and to evoke images of such religion-suppressing cultures as Stalinist Russia or Cambodia under Pol Pot. Yes, I can fully sympathize with John's anger at the way religion currently, even in free societies like America, denies basic freedoms to gays and oppresses them at every opportunity even without the benefit of totalitarian government helping them along. But remember, when you're dealing with irrationalists who are convinced that Christians are the oppressed minority merely defending themselves against the depradations of homos and libruls and commies, you have, I think, a special responsibility to avoid emotionalist, hyperbolic rhetoric.

My response to religion would not be to ban it, but to promote education in critical thinking and skepticism. It really doesn't take much of that for Christianity to crumble. So give people the cognitive tools they lack, and let them draw the obvious conclusions. Banning things is how fundies do their business. We can move humanity beyond that with rationalism alone.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Jesus camp from Jesus Camp shut down in wake of Haggard scandal

Wow — the good news just keeps pouring in. Hundreds of children have just been saved from abusive brainwashing! I'm starting to feel large portions of the world have taken a big, honking sanity pill. Naturally, there's still plenty of insanity left to correct....

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

All week, people will ask, "Why are you smiling?"

And you can just say, "Oh, it's nothing, really."

Election musings + open election thread

I suppose I shouldn't let the election pass without expressing my delight at the results. It's true, on the one hand, that the Democrats haven't exactly been formidable opponents for BushCo in recent years. They helped him launch the war in Iraq, they let him have his torture bill and warrantless wiretapping. They have been, for reasons that will remain long shrouded in mystery, a party that has consistently found itself (in the words of popular blogger John Scalzi) politically outmaneuvered and flummoxed time and again by the least popular and most incompetent president in history.

On the other hand, what happened yesterday at the polls was an unmistakable message from the American people: You guys are doing a shitty job, and we demand better. Now it's up to us to make sure the new Democratic majority in the House doesn't screw up and allow business as usual. We have to stay on their backs.

From a progressive/secularist/separationist point of view, there were a number of very important victories against the worst machinations of the Christian right. While a number of states passed the usual egregious anti-gay-marriage laws, Arizona, a pretty doggone red state, rejected one. South Dakotans sent that infamously draconian, misogynist anti-abortion law — the one that would have banned all abortions across the board, even if the mother's life were at risk — to the dustbin where it belonged. Red State Rabble reports that pro-science school board candidates in Ohio walked all over their creationist opponents, and even in Kansas, that hotbed of Machiavellian anti-science scheming, moderates appear to be back in control.

So in all, today is a good day to feel good. Now I'm going to declare the comments section open, for you to talk about the elections, how you voted and why, what you think the next two years might bring, etc.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Now unemployed and disgraced, Haggard unburdens himself

The latest in the ongoing Haggard opera involves a letter of apology he wrote to his still-reeling ex-congregation, which was read to them today.

Evangelical pastor Ted Haggard confessed on Sunday to a "lifelong" sexual problem, and said he was "a deceiver and a liar," in a letter read to his New Life Church.

"There is part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it all my life," he said in the letter.

Five will get you ten that Haggard is still so benighted that when he refers to the "repulsive and dark" aspect of his life, he's talking about his homosexual inclinations. Haggard's great tragedy is not that he's secretly gay or bi; there's nothing repulsive or dark about either. It's that he's allowed himself to absorb an archaic, misanthropic superstition that requires him to hate and refuse to accept himself. The "repulsive and dark" part of his life is the hyprocrisy, self-denial, and dishonesty that his Christianity has inculcated in him, and which has now led to great pain for his family and profound disillusionment for the thousands of parishioners who have had the rug of trust whipped out from beneath them.

Had Haggard, when a younger man and first aware of his homosexual leanings, come out and rejected the religion that teaches hate and intolerance of people like him, odds are that, while he most likely wouldn't have become a millionaire megachurch pastor and a major public figure with vast political clout, he would be much more likely to be happy and content living an honest life as an openly gay or bisexual man. He wouldn't have the money or fame, but then he wouldn't have had it to lose this spectacularly in a sordid scandal. What he might well have is self-respect and personal contentment, which is something money really can't buy.

I mean, compare the shame Haggard's experiencing to the positive vibes coming out of Neil Patrick Harris right now.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

And Haggard is...

...toast with jam!

The church has spoken:

We, the Overseer Board of New Life Church, have concluded our deliberations concerning the moral failings of Pastor Ted Haggard. Our investigation and Pastor Haggard's public statements have proven without a doubt that he has committed sexually immoral conduct.

Guess they looked at the weight of evidence behind the claim — something it would be nice for them to make a habit of before adopting their absurd views on homosexuality as some kind of disease and evolution as a myth — and saw that it came down in favor of the accuser.

I don't think it can be understated how damaging this is to the Christian Right's moral and political credibility, and the backscatter effect it could have on the GOP. They will, of course, recover, as they recovered after the Bakker and Tilton and Swaggart scandals — I predict some will adopt the "not a true Christian" stance — but in the short term, this will hurt them. Not bad, considering Election Day is in three days.

Speaking of which: remember I predicted that Washington would promptly start distancing themselves? Already happening...

On Friday, the White House sought to downplay Haggard's influence within the administration.

Spokesman Tony Fratto told reporters Friday that it was inaccurate to portray him as being close to the White House, insisting Haggard was only an occasional participant in weekly conference calls between West Wing staff and leading evangelicals.

"He has been on a couple of calls," Fratto said. "He's been to the White House one or two times."


Fear of an atheist planet

A Christian author by the name of Os Guiness is warning of a "growing atheist backlash to the political strength of Christian conservatives." Well, duh, and it's about bloody time, too! We've had it up to here with theocrats and religious demagogues attempting to legislate their faith, replace proper science education with Sunday School myths, deny large segments of the population basic rights like the ability to buy birth control or get married or have joint insurance for no reason other than ignorant prejudice, and generally running the country (and the world, if the gleeful drive towards Armageddon in the mid-east is any indication) into the ground. The fact that many of said theocratic demagogues are either arrogant bastards who think little things like tax laws don't apply to them, or repellent hypocrites who rail publicly against giving gays and lesbians marriage rights while conducting alleged meth-fueled extramarital gay sexual liaisons with male prostitutes on the down low, only makes a backlash far more essential to the health of the body politic.

Guiness says:

...he hopes there can be a respectful exchange of ideas somewhere between the militant extremes of religious violence and militant atheism.

What is this "militant" atheism of which he speaks? I know some people have called Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins "militant," but as far as I can tell, they only seem "militant" to theists who have heretofore gone through life enjoying an undeservedly privileged position of holding beliefs that it is considered impolite and "just not done" to question and critique in any public forum. If atheists can only be called "militant" because we exercise our free speech rights to voice our opinions, then it seems to me that cheapens the true meaning of the word "militant," which can, I believe, be better applied to theistic maniacs who crash airplanes into buildings, shoot abortion doctors, beat up gay men, slice off women's clitorises, and, you know, wage massive wars.

And if Christians want a "respectful exchange of ideas" with this "militant" atheist, perhaps they can start by repudiating the notion that I deserve an eternity of torture simply for not believing as they do.

That'll do for starters.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Haggard fesses up to meth and massage

The latest update in this ongoing sordid tale has Ted Haggard confessing to purchasing meth, as well as getting a massage, from Mike Jones, the gay gigolo he has been accused of paying for sledge trips down Brokeback Mountain. Haggard says that he then threw the drugs away, which has the ring of a Clintonian "But I didn't inhale!" comment.

Even if most of this turns out to be bogus, it looks like Haggard's damaged goods. Expect to see Bush and other religious right leaders start distancing themselves.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

And the verdict is...(drum roll please)...

Kent Hovind: Guilty!

Gee, that was a surprise! [/sarcasm] They didn't exactly throw the book at "Dr." Dino; it's more like they shot it at him from a cannon. It looks as if old Kent could be sent up the river for up to — choke! — 288 years, which is almost as long as he thinks the Earth has been around.

This is just — unreal!

It appears that Ted Haggard, the blowhard evangelist who (as previously reported here) figures prominently in such recent media presentations as Dawkins' The Root of All Evil? and Jesus Camp, has been accused of paying a gay man for gay sex. Haggard has temporarily stepped down in order to let an independent investigation (naturally in the interests of clearing his name) commence.

Haggard is considered one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. Like many other Dominionists, he has the ear of the president. And he is, of course, ferociously opposed to gay marriage.

Some years ago a similar accusation was made against TBN president Paul Crouch, but that accusation turned out to have no merit and was in fact a pretty clear attempt at extortion. Here, though, the gay man who has come forth with all this, Mike Jones, does not appear to be looking for money and claims to have spoken out of conflicted feelings dealing with his ongoing private relationship with a two-faced homophobe who publically took a passionate anti-gay stance. We will, of course, have to see how this all pans out, and if Haggard suffers the same ignominious fall from grace as Swaggart and Bakker.

In any event, while we atheists will certainly get another schadenfreude moment out of this if it turns out to be true, to add to our present Hovind schadenfreude, it will not exactly come as a huge surprise to encounter another hypocritical evangelist who doesn't see fit to practice what he preaches, will it?